5 Page Challenge
Fifteen-year-old Sam lives alone with her grandmother, who has late-stage Alzheimer's. She can't let anyone know that she is the one in charge or she could lose her home and the only family she's ever had. And thanks to high school, that is the least of her problems right now.
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The blaring laughter that followed the processed lunchmeat outburst could only mean that my usual tormentors were wide-awake and on the prowl. I turned up the volume to my headphones and dropped my purse and backpack on the nearest cafeteria table, far from the center table where they were still sitting together snickering over the name they had baptized me with way back in third grade. The jerks of the male variety literally high-fived each other when they saw me drop my head and turn away from their table.
How original. Spam. Because it rhymes with Sam. The young poet laureates of Benton, Florida, had put their heads together in this think tank of a public school wasteland and come up with a real zinger. And it’s been with me ever since.
I’m sure the fine people at the Discovery Channel could do an entire documentary on the high school food chain, the survival of the fittest, the evolution of the various packs that make up the society, the workers, drones, and queen bee of the hive. All that stuff. Because maybe then their researchers could explain to the rest of us what exactly sets some students apart as carnivores and the rest of us as their prey.
I mean, I’m a completely ordinary girl. I wake up, come to this war zone of a school, and go home. I’m absolutely the most typical looking person, with plain brown hair, hazelish eyes, a little on the skinny side. I don’t stand out, I don’t call attention to myself, I don’t try to overthrow anyone’s Homecoming Queen throne, so how come I’m the total victim? I guess it still wouldn’t change how some of these mental midgets treat me, but I don’t bother anybody. So why me?
The “Spam! Spam! Spam!” Spam-chant began at one table towards the middle of the room, whispered at first, but getting louder, punctuated with some good rhythmic table-pounding until finally a teacher looks up from her lunchtime coma and tells them to quiet down.
A few of the tables scattered around the oversized room are filled with kids who typically ignore the brutal and out-loud teasing, probably because they’ve been Professional Victims at some point or another in this inferno. I’m sure they’re feeling super embarrassed for me, so they look out the windows or at their lunch trays or anywhere else but at me. If they see me looking at them, they’ll have to acknowledge that they sat silently on the sidelines and watched the gladiator match of me versus the cool kids without throwing me a lifeline. Or at least putting me out of my misery.
My grandmother, who is probably the wisest and happiest person on the planet, lived by this mantra and it made her into the craziest upbeat person on the entire planet: “If you can’t see the bright side, polish the dull side.” So here goes. On the bright side, no one talking to me means that my one real friend has plenty of my undivided attention. No one besides Other Sam ever talks to me, but Other Sam doesn’t count. He has to talk to me, first because of the obvious name thing but also because he’s my almost-next-door neighbor. We’ve walked to the bus stop together every day since we started school and even though he’s old enough to drive now and got a really great car for his sixteenth birthday, he still takes the bus with me.
The greatest thing about Other Sam is when he pretends to be Spam for me. He waves and smiles at the taunters like they’re complimenting him with their remarks, then acts like he’s shocked that they were actually talking ugly about him. Everybody knows the cool kids are talking about me, but he always floats into the room and takes the heat, acting weird the way only he can until just about everyone has forgotten why they were talking about Spam in the first place. He’s lucky. He doesn’t care what anyone says or does, mostly because his family has more money than that entire lunch table’s families combined, but they get to me every time. The really crappy thing is they know it.
It’s not long before the food starts flying. It always starts small, with chunks of a roll or the occasional flicked pea. If that fails to get my attention, it’s not long before something sauce-covered whops with perfect accuracy right in front of me, close enough to splatter me but not so close that it actually hits me. Today it’s industrial cafeteria meatloaf, rolled in extra-goopy amounts of ketchup. I brush the chunks aside with my napkin and go back to eating my tray.
“Why don’t you fling that back at them?” Other Sam asks as he drops his backpack on the floor beside the table and takes the seat across from me, wrinkling his nose at the processed food invasion. “Don’t take that off them.”
“It’s better to just let it go. They’re just trying to get a reaction. When they figure out it isn’t going to happen, they’ll get bored. Or something shiny will fly past them and they’ll get distracted,” I mumble into my lunch. The next piece just misses lodging itself in my hair.
“Tell me once again why we keep eating in here?” Other Sam rolls his eyes at our surroundings, as though all of high school but especially a cafeteria is too ridiculous to be tolerated. I’m starting to agree with him there.
“You know how I adore fine dining,” I smirk, “and the haute cuisine in this establishment is incomparable. You do know they don’t allow just anyone to eat here. You have to be somebody important and know the right people just to get a table, and even then the reservations can take months.” Other Sam smiled at me, relieved that I can still make a joke with the continuous barrage of food stuffs still arriving in front of us. What I can’t face is telling him that I receive free lunch and this is the only hot food I’m going to eat all day. The food is nasty and the ambiance sucks, but it’s one meal that I don’t have to cook for myself or worse, dip into my meager budget for.
I also can’t stand to tell him that my free lunch is the reason they’re trying to pelt me with pieces of lunch. It became an inside joke of theirs years ago, pretending they were offering me more food since I’m obviously too poor to afford any myself. I thought the names of kids who received free lunch was supposed to be confidential, but obviously I was mistaken. Of course, it doesn’t take a detective to figure out who has money in this school and who doesn’t. Take a stroll through the parking lot sometime checking out the sports cars and you’ll see where the student body power really lies.
A French fry whistled through the air with not just awesome accuracy but also some real speed to it. They must have enlisted the help of a member of our school’s baseball team.
It slid from where it landed on the fake wood grained table top and collided with my elbow, leaving a red ketchup stain on my sleeve. A victory cheer went up from their table when one of the barely edible missiles finally hits its mark.
“So, do you have big plans this weekend?” Other Sam asked lightly, changing the subject and pretending we don’t have an entire buffet landing on our lunch table. It’s really great of him to sit through this. I wouldn’t blame a lesser friend if he refused to sit with me anymore.
“Oh, you know, always more of the same. Cancers to cure, acceptance speeches to write, tea with the Queen. I just don’t know how I’ll find the time,” I replied haughtily with a smile. Another French fry splattered somewhere nearby and bounced to the floor near my shoe.
“That’s nice, dear. Give my best to Camilla. Be sure to wear your white gloves and a really big hat,” he replied before idly reaching for his phone to reply to an incoming text. His attention was diverted for a moment by the photo on the phone before he sighed and whipped the device around to show me the tiny screen. “How many times have I told you not to change for PE in the locker room?”
The image of my bent-over backside, mercifully still covered by my underwear, shined back at me from his phone. My suddenly bright red cheeks (the ones on my face, that is) must have said it all because their table erupted in howls of laughter. All around the cafeteria phones began to buzz and alert to life as the text of my butt made the circuit of the lunchroom. The laughter spread like a rampant virus until I can see everyone in the room looking in my direction, even people who haven’t gotten the picture. Yet. Some of them were probably just grateful that I was the target and they were off the victim hook for now.
This day just got better and better. I turned back to finishing my lunch so I could get out of there before any tears could give me away. I made myself useful by wiping up as much of the projectile food as I could off the table with my napkin and dropping it onto my finished tray.
“Seriously? You’re going to clean up after them?” Other Sam, sounding suspiciously disappointed in my lack of backbone.
“What, like you think I should leave it for the cafeteria ladies to have to clean up? First of all, they shouldn’t have to clean this up, and second, they’ll just assume I’m a sloppy eater. They’re going to think I need to start wearing a bib, I swear.” I continued wiping at the micropuddles of ketchup and meatloaf grease, taking Other Sam’s used napkin from his lunch tray to splotch up the rest of it when my napkin was used up.
“Why don’t you report this?” Other Sam demanded kindly. “This is actually a crime. The text picture alone is technically distribution of pornography and other kids in this great nation of ours have been arrested for it. And small towns are really cracking down on bullying nowadays with strict criminal penalties.” It’s super that his dad’s a lawyer.
“And what do I do when I report it? Huh?” I asked in a beaten down tone of voice. “Do I tell them my grandmother will be up here for a conference, demanding that they punish the offenders? I can’t do that. She’s not well anymore, I can’t put her through that.”
You don’t take up surfing when you’re trying not to make waves, I thought to myself.
The truth is, I can’t put me through that. If I were to try to bring my grandmother up there, they would all see exactly how far off the deep end she’s gone. It would be very, very bad, for both of us.
I jerked my head up from my notebook and stared blankly at Mrs. Tindall. I could tell by the way she was holding her book and the big smelly dry erase marker that she had asked some kind of question, but I didn’t hear what it was. Even more painfully, she knew it. I waited morosely for the guillotine to fall while wearing what I hoped was my best apologetic expression.
“Are you unable to answer my question because you don’t know the correct response or because you failed to pay attention when I first spoke it?” Mrs. Tindall glared at me over the top of her reading glasses that she always wore pushed way down low on her nose, her wrinkled face oozing with disgust for my lack of interest in The Great Gatsby. A few of the students who enjoy my daily humiliation started snickering in the back of the room, but not enough to bring down the Wrath of Tindall upon them. Or maybe she was actually really glad about my ultra public humiliation and let their laughing continue.
“Um, the second one, ma’am,” I answered humbly. I looked utterly repentant, but she was not to be won over.
“Then allow me to repeat myself for your benefit while the rest of the class waits breathlessly for your riveting answer. I asked you to explain how Gatsby can be considered to be a metaphor for the American dream, but since I needed that answer forty seconds ago you may write an essay instead. Twelve hundred words, please, on my desk tomorrow, and do me the honor of not wasting my time again. Let’s move on, students.”
I swear I have a really good excuse for not paying attention. I’m not one of those sad kids you hear about who sleep their way through the school day because they work super late hours at an after school job just to help their families pay for a younger sibling’s cancer medicine. And I don’t mean to sound like those kids shouldn’t be given a break. No, I was just mentally occupied with wondering what Gamma was doing at this very moment. I admit it, there probably are not a lot of my classmates who are daydreaming about their grandmothers right now, but I’ve always known I’m not normal.
The year I turned eight, Gamma spent a huge chunk of her time forgetting where she left stuff, like the car, her purse, our dog, and the road she lives on. About two years after that we finally had a firm diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. And it wasn’t the slow kind that gives the patient a lot of warning that they were losing their minds, either. It was like, one day she had to have a bunch of tests run, and the next, boom. Completely lost. I know it wasn’t really that fast but it sure felt like it.
And then I came home from school one ordinary day to find Gamma completely naked, sitting in the hallway in a pale yellow puddle of her own pee. There are absolutely no words.
The really sad thing is when Gamma started having these lapses, it wasn’t like she was entirely unaware. The day of the pee incident she hadn’t just forgotten where the bathroom was, she forgot what a bathroom was for. Her brain could still register the urge to pee, but she didn’t know what to do about it, so when she had an accident she was totally mortified. When she tried to change her clothes, she couldn’t figure out how to put on the clean outfit so she ended up ashamed and naked.
Gamma slip-sliding downhill fast meant that I became the grown-up, practically overnight. I’m the one who keeps the house clean, pays the bills, does the grocery shopping, fixes stuff that gets broken. I leave the house every morning on the school bus, deadbolting the door shut and taking the only key, then race home after school to make sure Gamma hasn’t hurt herself. I actually jumped off the school bus once and ran home when we had to stop for road construction, just because it was taking too long.
The dull side of this, besides the obvious thing about basically losing my Gamma, is having to be in charge. Sure, the bright side is the cool responsibilities, like driving the car, but I’d agree to never drive as long as I lived if it meant Gamma could be back to normal again. Of course, the car’s dull side is auto repairs, the price of gas, car insurance, going to jail when they find out I don’t have a license, the list goes on. But no one knows that I can drive in an emergency, like when Gamma has a doctor’s appointment. No one knows I’m the one who drives her there. And they’d better not find out or I’ll be in worlds of trouble.
Losing your memory isn’t the cruelest thing about Alzheimer’s. It’s not just that it makes you so completely mental that you don’t care what you do anymore, it steals parts of your mind from you one little piece at a time. You end up wetting your pants and not being able to do anything about it, then still feeling horribly embarrassed and without any kind of dignity whatsoever. When I bought some adult diapers for Gamma, first she was really mad and made it out like I was trying to play a cruel joke, but when she realized that they really were for her own good, she got really sad about it.
And with Alzheimer’s, you still have the rest of the way to go. When your brain finally degenerates to the point that you’re oblivious, it’s almost kinder that way.
When I realized that I was in danger of getting called out for daydreaming again, I snapped my attention back to the teacher and tried my best to follow along. I jotted a reminder to myself in the corner of my notebook about that wretched Gatsby paper. Twelve hundred words on the American dream? What’s that?
I’m fifteen years old. When I was almost two my mom plopped me in my crib and left to go score some drugs. She never came back. Three days later the neighbors called the police because of my crying. Meanwhile, my dad is serving a life sentence for killing someone in a gas station hold-up. He’s been locked up since just before I was born. I’ve seen him twice, both times looking at his haggard, stubbly face through a thick glass window, his voice distorted by the telephone handset we had to use to talk to each other. I was afraid of him. So much for the American dream.
My Gamma has been my safety net for basically my whole life. She took me in after my mom left and raised me without a single complaint, even though my grandfather had just died and she didn’t have any idea her daughter even had a kid. Since her diagnosis almost seven years ago, I’ve had to start raising her, but she’s going in the wrong direction. Instead of growing up, she’s becoming more and more childlike.
My American dream? To make it all the way through high school without starring in my own porno courtesy of the woodweasels who roam the halls. To keep Gamma from burning down our house while I’m at school all day. To figure out why my mom dumped me and never looked back.
Somehow a spoiled playboy from the 1920s who lives for his crazy parties and daily outings in his motorcar just isn’t on my radar. I really do hate it that Mrs. Tindall thinks I’m a slacker with no ambition. In fact, I have oodles of ambition, it’s just not for the stuff she or any of my other teachers think is important.
I never met my grandfather but I’m grateful every single day for that guy. He must have been pretty smart, because he left his wife in manageable financial shape, what with having paid off the house and land and putting aside a little nest egg for the future. I was shocked the first time I saw the bank statements, and thought our problems were solved with that much money. But then the reality of what it costs to keep a house going hit me head on.
I can’t let myself spend any of that money on everyday type things. I have serious bills to pay, like the homeowner’s insurance. And even though our residents enjoy not having a state property tax, there’s still the county’s own tax on Gamma’s farm and on the interest her meager savings account and investments earn to cough up every year. Right off the bat I canceled every expense we didn’t need, like cable television and paying someone to cut the grass on an entire farm. Hey, I’ve got two perfectly good legs, and the arms to push the lawn mower with.
It’s hard to believe that coming up with the money to pay our bills isn’t the hardest part of running our household. The worst part is actually getting the stuff done, like all the different bills paid and the occasional repair handled. The probate judge really doesn’t like it when a teenager comes in and hands over a $1500 check that was supposedly written by her grandmother. Last time I got all panicked because he stared down his nose and raised those bushy eyebrows when I told him that my grandmother really did ask me to drop it off at the courthouse on the way home from school because she was busy. I can tell he didn’t buy it. Lying isn’t my special talent.
Being in charge also means that I’m the one who makes sure Gamma makes it to doctor’s appointments without anyone realizing the person driving the car doesn’t have a driver’s license. The problem is the doctor and his nurses are probably the only people in the world who cannot be fooled or lied to, unlike the neighbors or the people who see me running errands for Gamma. The doctor knows how bad off Gamma is. And everybody in town knows I don’t have parents. Ergo, I must be taking care of myself, which you can’t do without some social worker butting her nose in where she’s not wanted. I’ve held the doctor off this long by telling him that the neighbor comes and sits with Gamma while I’m at school.
“Really? That’s awfully nice of her,” Dr. Stimmon drawled, like he just doesn’t believe that people do nice things for each other these days. “If your neighbor stays with her, why doesn’t she bring her to her appointments? Then you wouldn’t have to bother with coming so late after school if your neighbor could drive her.” Great. He’s not buying it either. Fortunately, I think he’s required by law to keep his mouth shut about Gamma’s condition. At least, I hope he is.
When the bell finally signaled the end of the literature torture chamber, I tried to slink out of the room unnoticed. Why I thought I could pull that off with a demon like Mrs. Tindall, I’ll never know.
“Samantha, may I speak with you if it’s not too much trouble?” she intoned in her sarcastic dictator voice.
I looked at my watch, hoping she would get the hint that I had to get moving. I wouldn’t be completely outright rude to a teacher, but I knew what was coming. A lecture on how I don’t apply myself, how I’m wasting her time, how I’m taking up space and oxygen that another student could use. Blah blah blah. I had a bus to catch.
“I’m extremely alarmed that you don’t seem to appreciate the value of the education you are being given at this school.” She paused to adjust her glasses even further down on her witch nose, mostly so she could look over the tops of them at me again. Why did she even wear those things if she didn’t need to see through them? I think it was just for the effect.
“I really do care about school, Mrs. Tindall,” I began eagerly and remorsefully before she could cut me off.
“When you signed up for the honors program, I had hoped someone from your background would realize the need to put forth even more effort than the other students.” She glared at me like she was daring me to have a smart-mouthed comeback.
My background? Which part of my background was she referring to, the murderer dad or the druggie mom or just being poor in general? Was she implying that maybe I wasn’t as smart as the other kids in that class because my mom must have smoked crack while she was pregnant with me?
Despite that zinger, I wasn’t off the hook yet. “If you are unable to pay attention in class, either because you’re not dedicated to your studies or because of some possible learning deficiency, I will have to recommend to the guidance counselor that you be removed from advanced classes to make room for a student who has more of a future plan.”
Geez, lady, why don’t you throw cafeteria food at me, since you’re just like the rest of them?
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be better prepared next time.” I rushed out the door before I missed my bus. Or maybe I was trying to outrun my mouth before it could catch up to what my brain was already planning on saying. Either way, smarting off to Mrs. Tindall wasn’t going to improve anything. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would turn sixteen in four months. Then I would be old enough to quit school and leave this paradise behind.
Other Sam caught up to me on the bus, sliding into the seat so fast that it bumped me up against the window. “Hey, I heard Tindall gave you a hard time. What was that all about?”
“First of all, how do you know about that? It happened, like, four minutes ago. I swear there are no secrets in this school!” I slumped in my seat and crossed my arms, pissed off all over again at reliving the verbal beat-down I had just gotten.
“So, what gives? Is it your failure to live up to her incredibly high expectations again? Or did you shoot someone in class?” Other Sam tried to look all concerned, but the expression on his face was too sarcastic to make his point.
“The same old crap,” I mumbled, looking out the window.
“Don’t let her bug you. Come, on let’s jump off the bus at my house and grab my car, we’ll go into town and see a movie or something,” Other Sam suggested, trying to make me forget about my bad day.
“That sounds great, but I can’t make it. I’ve got an essay to write for Tindall and my grandmother has a bunch of stuff she needs me to do around the house. And when she finds out why I have to write this essay, she’ll probably ground me for a month.” I kept looking out the window, hoping I didn’t have, “I suck at lying,” written all over my face.
“Give me a break, I know your grandmother. She’s not going to ground you, she’s going to feed you cookies on her lap and tell you that she’ll run over Mrs. Tindall with her car if she gives you any more trouble. I wish my parents were ‘strict disciplinarians’ like your grandmother!”
“No, she’s really had to start cracking down, you have no idea. It’s like she’s afraid I’ll get into all kinds of teenaged trouble if she doesn’t crack the whip once in a while.” Wow, the lies just come pouring out, don’t they?
“Huh. I didn’t know she could be so mean. Maybe you should tell her to ease up on you some, you know, don’t be such a dictator.”
Okay, now wait. It’s one thing for me to lie about Gamma to explain why I could never go hang out anymore, it’s a whole other ballgame to let someone else say ugly things about her. Even if I did just tell him to his face that Gamma was basically a witch in bifocals.
“Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. I know deep down she’s just worried about me getting hurt or something.” Change the subject, already.
“So what do you have to write your essay on? I could come over and help,” Other Sam hinted. I really didn’t deserve a friend like him.
“Oh, I’m not sure she’ll let anyone come over during homework time. And it’s not that bad, I’ll knock it out in no time. You just go home, put your feet up, let the servants fan you and feed you grapes, all that stuff,” I laughed in what I hoped was my playful, “not a care in the world” voice.
“More like wrestling my little brother for the last of the Captain Crunch,” he joked, but he didn’t seem to be as into the conversation as before. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he muttered before getting up from his seat at our stop.
“Yeah, see you then,” I called to his back. I climbed down the steps of the bus and turned in the other direction, walking as quickly as I could without him noticing.